Sunday, May 27, 2018

G&G XIII: Shoot Your Cuffs

The very first Gaming & Guinness group photo, from G&G II in Qualicum Beach, was almost an afterthought. 

The inaugural event had been cobbled together with very short notice - less than a month in fact - and the whole thing had a very loose, almost haphazard feel to it. The whole shebang came together in less than a month, as I remember it, and I was ironing transfers onto t-shirts in a makeshift sweatshop with my girls the night before the out-of-towners arrived. 

But the gathering was a success, and before it was even over, Island Mike had said, "Next year, my place." It was not a question.

And so it was that two of us flew and three of us drove out to Vancouver Island in March of 2007 to drink beers, play games, share meals, stay up too late and laugh uproariously while doing so. At some point during the proceedings we deployed a camera and tripod for a quick self-timer group photo of us in front of the Warhammer 40,000 table.

Yeah, yeah, we get it: the years have left their mark. Well, except for Rob, obvsly.
We've grabbed a group photo pretty much every year since, but about a decade in, we became bored with the familiar, mediocre, team photo shot, and began to experiment with slightly more creative staging, culminating in last year's excellent jersey-alley composition:

Framed copies of this pic with signed mattes were part of this year's swag!
Having unleashed the beast now, I suppose it is not altogether surprising that this year's photo took about two hours to rig up and shoot, although you probably wouldn't know it to look at it.

This is not really the final product either, but a good example to share in the meantime. The actual photo is trying to evoke a candid, late-night, 'crypto-nerd lounge' vibe, requiring a lot of men to dress up who do not do so on a regular basis a number of whom are both contented and comforted in that fact. Their commitment, however, to the loosely articulated idea I shared in an email a few months ago was pronounced enough that they were willing to squeeze into old suits, jackets and ties and allow themselves to be posed like enormous mannequins and shot and flashed (oo, that sounds saucier than it probably needs to) for the better part of an hour.

And this posing only took place after we had spent another hour or so dressing the set, moving and remounting decorations, creating props and gags that are far too small or subtle to be spotted on the screen of a mobile device, where I imagine most people will see them. (For example, that martini glass doesn't have an olive, but the 30-sided dice from Formula Dé (which can also be seen in the brilliant poster in the background, commissioned for this event)).

But pictures are a key part of memory, and every time I look at the one we spent a lot of time on, I am going to remember not only a brilliant weekend and the games we played, but the camaraderie we shared, and everything we did to get to this point. 
  • Moving a heavy table to three different positions before finally settling on one.
  • Printing out and cutting out a paper chessboard because it turned out there was none to be had in the house.
  • Calculating the proper amount of used and empty glassware to convey conviviality without suggesting full-blown alcohol dependency or abuse.
  • Lending a nerdy tie to a brother disappointed in his lack of thematic neckwear.
  • Experimenting with the volumetric capacity of a variety of glassware in order to support a number of dice-based gags.
  • Meticulously lining up a number of characterful bottles along the countertop, only to completely eclipse them with five sturdy blokes.
  • Most importantly, the brainstorming, collaboration and idea sharing that saw everyone contribute something to a creatively staged photo.
Best of all, we came away with 2-3 other non-boring photo ideas which will take far less labour to execute, so we should be good now until G&G XVI or so. But I'm really looking forward to the one Earl is finishing up; it will be a special memento of a special time, spent with extraordinary men who share a phenomenal commitment to fun and fellowship.

Is it an exceptional event, or an event made exceptional by those who attend it? Truly, a koan worthy of a Zen master. Either way, even this photo captures a surprising amount of it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Second Verse, with a Twist - Deadpool 2 Reviewed

Glory and I took in Deadpool 2 Saturday afternoon, and had a good time. Not a great time, and not a grand old time, but we were solidly entertained. It's not as clever as the first one, and wallows in its own pathos for a bit too long, but by the time the second act comes along, it begins to find its stride and even pulls a couple of surprises.

The fist Deadpool was nothing but surprising:an R-rated, foul-mouthed, amoral anti-hero with a penchant for breaking the 4th wall? Unheard of! So, in a lot of ways, the sequel has only themselves to blame for the high expectations fans were going to have. But that's okay, we can give a little latitude to a sequel, if it gives us a lot of what we came looking for, along with some twists.

The first twist, the aforementioned pathos, which I shall not spoil, does make it difficult to return to the manic action comedy side of things, but, you know, kudos for going there, I suppose? It's pretty hard to revisit the level of shock provoked by the first one, so this was one way to attempt doing so.

The second twist: integrating DP into a team, twice. After his time as an X-Man (trainee) goes about how you might expect, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) find himself at his lowest ebb. But in the second act, he and Weasel (T.J. Miller) hold auditions for a "super-duper team" and come up with an approximation of Marvel's X-Force, drawn (largely)from the comics in order to protect an adolescent mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison, from Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

The reason Russell needs protection is because time-travelling, mega-gun toting, cyber-armed badass Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second role as a big-budget comics heavy this month!) is after him because of terrible acts he commits in the future.

Now, this is where it gets clever: I don't know if I have ever read a single comic with Cable in it, despite being a massive X-Men fan, but even I know that these two end up going buddy-cop at some point, and have shared a few titles in their day. But they wisely discard a lot of Cable's more convoluted backstory, and make their seemingly inevitable team-up feel very tenuous for most of the movie, which was kind of cool.

Zazie Beetz is also a standout as Domino, a kick-ass, smart-ass mutant who can spar verbally with the star, and whose superpower revolves around being 'lucky'. This is portrayed very cleverly by new director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) despite Deadpool's audible contrariness stating this is not actually a power, and even if it is, it wouldn't be very cinematic (which: it is, and it is, respectively).

The marketing team at Fox should also be congratulated for bringing in a big X-Men villain as the surprising true villain of the piece, even if their animation seemed a little rough so soon after leaving us entranced by Thanos in Infinity War.

Probably most importantly though, is the fan service, and its not just for comics fans either. Movie buffs will get a kick out of Wilson's comparison to the second biggest February-opener (up until Black Panther) which is a deep cut. They run just as deep for comic nerds though, as when the titular character wagers that Domino's uneffective, non-cinematic power was probably invented by someone who can't draw feet, and you can almost feel Rob Liefield wincing. There are some A-level cameos as well, including a couple I missed.

And I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the post credits scene is one of the best in recent memory.

In short, if you liked the first one, you will like this one too.It is like the original, only even more so in some places. The shy, sensitive or profanity-offended should probably give this one a wide berth, which is like a red carpet being rolled out for fans like myself.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Foggy Mountain Communication Breakdown Madness

Communication breakdown
It's always the same
I'm having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!
- "Communication Breakdown" by Led Zeppelin

One of the cool gifts I received for my birthday was the Mountains of Madness boardgame, by Rob Daviau (Risk 2210, Risk Legacy, Seafall). It's a co-operative game based on a Cthulhuverse novella by H.P. Lovecraft, in which an Antarctic expedition in 1931 encounters strange creatures and disorienting phenomenon before discovering ruins from an ancient and malevolent prehuman civilization, the knowledge of which begins to drive the party insane. (My apologies if you thought this post was going to be about some kind of Earl Scruggs/Jimmy Page mashup.)

I've never come across a Lovecraft-inspired game that didn't reference sanity (or its lack thereof) in some fashion. In many games (Cthulhu Dice, for instance) it is effectively treated like currency. In role-playing games, it is another form of health, similar to hit points, but which players are encouraged to act out. Mountains of Madness is the first game I've played where sanity/insanity is not simply treated as a score, but has increasingly chaotic and entertaining impacts on the game as it progresses.

Each turn, 3-5 players make their way up and across the mountain, from the Coast, to the slopes of the Mountain itself, through the ancient City and eventually, to the Edge of Madness itself. 

Each space contains a tile which, when flipped over, tells the players the requirements for passing that tile's challenge, as well as the reward for success: a relic, an arcane weapon, or perhaps a chance to heal or refresh the party. The challenges start out as numeric ranges in a number of categories, e.g. 7-10 in Weapons plus 9-12 in Books. Players then have only 30 seconds to discuss how they are going to share the numbered equipment cards they have in order to meet those goals. They are not permitted to discuss their hands outside of this 30 second window.

This would be challenging enough on its own, but inevitably (and right from the start in a 5-player game), madness begins to take its toll.

Madness cards compel the player to act in a specifically peculiar fashion, but only during the Encounter Phase, while the timer is going. The rest of the time they have to pretend that they have no recollection of acting peculiarly. You can't ask questions to clarify what someone else's deal is, or try to come up with a workaround. You simply have to do the best you can before time runs out.

Glory was the first to succumb, and Fenya found it a bit disorienting when her sister started stroking her face while she was trying to determine how many crate cards she might be able to contribute to the cause. A few turns later, Fenya began scratching her head frantically during the Encounter Phase, which was not only distracting, but also impeded her ability to handle her cards effectively.

There are three levels of madness cards, and higher levels replace the lower ones (thank goodness!), but when I got to level 2's 'Dashing' card, I not only had to hold a finger to my lip like an ersatz mustache, but I wouldn't communicate with anyone who was not doing the same! Thankfully Glory caught on fairly quickly, but Fenya found it hard to remember this once she became 'tired', and had to spend the entire Encounter Phase seated on the floor.

We enjoyed tremendous success on the Coast portion of the board, but things quickly came apart on the Mountain portion, as we dealt with increasing levels of madness, and had challenges that no longer permitted a numeric range, but a specific value or values; instead of 9-12 Tools, you might need 13 or 15 (but not 14).

The relics we acquired also made things more complicated. In addition to increasing our madness (yes, that's right: every single item you get that you require in order to win the game makes you a little crazier), some of them introduced other restrictions. Soon certain players couldn't cash in Leadership tokens in order to get another 30 seconds on the timer, or take a re-roll on the penalty dice. When Fenya was party leader, she was required to discard the lowest value Crate submitted for the challenge, necessitating an additional, low value Crate card be submitted on her turn.

On the other hand, Arcane Equipment we found, like the Elder Sign (Weapon 10) and Necronomicon (Book 10), had very high values which made it easier to reach some of the harder goals as we approached the summit. Except, you know, when it made it harder to stick the landing on a specific number.

In the end, our attempt to take the 4 relics we had collected and power through to the Escape tiles left us too injured to win, but at least we made it back. More importantly, we had a wonderful time trying to meet our challenges while overcoming the limitations imposed by our lack of sanity.

Which, now that I think of it, is not just an apt description of family game night, but family life in general.

We will definitely be returning to this Mountain of Madness again, and even though it can only accommodate 5 players, I dearly hope this gets played at G&G XIII later this month. Not too many boardgames have this much potential for spectator entertainment, especially when the game comes with some blank Madness cards so you can create your own bizarre behaviors.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Dis/Closure and Sudden Departures

As the years went by, we drifted apart 
When I heard that he was gone 
I felt a shadow cross my heart 
But he's nobody's
Hero - is the voice of reason 
Against the howling mob 
Hero - feels the pride of purpose 
In the unrewarding job 
-Nobody's Hero, Rush
They let my rabbi go on Tuesday.

Rabbi is a term I picked up from David Simon's brilliant tv series The Wire. Baltimore Police officers in that program used the term to describe superiors in the department who had taken an interest in their careers, acting as mentors, advocates, interveners or coaches as the situation dictated.

My rabbi mentored a number of people in my workplace, and was renowned as one of the better 'people managers' in the organization. When the last org chart shuffle left him without anyone reporting directly to him, many of us wondered what the future might hold, but he ended up shepherding a major strategic plan for over a year. The plan involved interviews, an all-hands offsite workshop, and unprecedented collaboration across all levels of the company. It was a pleasure to work on, honestly, and those sentiments were echoed by many others.

But that project wrapped up earlier this year, and on Tuesday we found out he had been let go, along with two other mid-level executives.

Well wishes were disbursed appropriately, and an explanatory email from the boss made it crystal clear that this was not a reflection on anyone's work, but, rather, an existential need to move the organization in a new direction.

True or not though, all I could think of after finding out was what an ignominious end it was for someone who had been so instrumental in moving us to our current culture.

It reminded me of when I had left GW a decade ago; after the initial shock of being told I was leaving the company I had served for over a decade (and moved across the country for on two occasions) had worn off, I believed it was probably for the best. My biggest lament was not being able to attend the big staff conference and tournament being held down east that same week in order to say goodbye.

I'd asked about attending as a guest, and my boss and the HR manager who had accompanied him sifted uncomfortably and said that it wouldn't be possible. And I get it; even with the best of intentions, who's to say I wouldn't let my emotions overcome my better nature once I was actually there, saying goodbye for the last time, confronted with the finality and perceived judgement of it, and undoubtedly socially lubricated by comrades wanting to buy me a drink? No right-thinking leader is going to greenlight a scenario with so many potential sticking points.

But to this day, I deeply regret not being permitted that opportunity for closure. And now I am on the other side of it as my rabbi is forced, without warning or preamble, to wholly reconsider his place in the workforce.

Those of us left behind, colleagues, mentees, beneficiaries of the rabbi's wisdom and insight, have discussed it in hushed terms, and while none of us are particularly shocked, we are all surprised and saddened. It is universally accepted that the suddenness of his departure is discreditable, and reflects poorly upon the organization.

But no one has a reasonable alternative.

I read about some workplaces, in certain situations, giving soon-to-be-ex employees a future end date for their employment. If agreed upon, both parties would have the right to terminate the agreement if certain conditions weren't met by either party, e.g. "Two people have told us about how you made them uncomfortable by either talking smack about your bosses or pressuring them to join your multi-level marketing opportunity, so we are rescinding 1 week of the severance pay in your package and letting you go today instead of next Friday."

I'm sure just coming up with a suitable arrangement would be hellaciously difficult in most situations, to say nothing about how to enforce it, and the challenge of keeping things agreeable until the day of departure. It does create an environment slightly more conducive for closure though, which is something the human element on both sides of this equation will crave.

It's not unlike a death, I suppose. Despite the fact that no one involved is permanently beyond the veil or out of reach, the sudden and dramatic change in the workplace and relationships that have grown out of it are significantly impacted. The outplaced individual has to undergo a sudden and unpleasant reevaluation of their abilities, their goals, and their very selves, while those still in the workplace have cause to question the loyalty of their organization and the very real possibility that their own departure may play out in a similar fashion. Depending on the specific circumstances, a chance to say goodbye might not even help, but on the whole, what would you prefer for yourself?

There is a story about a family that owned a pair of dogs, and when one became ill and had to be put down, the other dog was acting out of character and upset, displaying bad behavior. This continued until the vet advised bringing her in to see the body of their other pet. They did this, and the surviving animal sniffed the body of her counterpart and satisfied herself as to his fate. Afterwards, there was a discernible period of sadness, but a notable improvement afterwards.

If even a simple animal benefits from this manner of closure, why would we deny it to ourselves, even in something as impermanent as a workplace dismissal?

I recognize there are no simple solutions, but I encourage everyone reading this to talk it up with their workplace superiors and HR people; maybe together we can put together a better alternative to sudden emails wishing a suddenly-former colleague all the best in their future endeavours.

In the meantime though, my workplace is now without a gifted individual deeply committed to the well-being of not only the organization, but the individuals who make it up. Days later, I still have to remind myself that I can't ask my rabbi a certain question, or share a certain insight, because he is no longer there because of the shifting vicissitudes of corporate life, and at this particular moment, I find that intrinsically crappy and unfair.

I am confident the rabbi will end up all right, in the same way I know that a person I see taking a painful fall is probably going to walk away from it, albeit with a limp, but that knowledge doesn't make it any more pleasant to witness.

Good luck Rabbi, and thanks for everything. You leave a lot of grateful folk in your wake who are better people now than when they met you. Please remember that despite the way things have played out, there are countless instances in which you are somebody's hero.